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A Complaint, Sort Of, And A Puzzlement

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This week-end, I went looking for something I couldn’t find.  And not wanting to be an idiot, I decided to do the sensible thing and ask a lot of people if they could help me find it.
This project was made a little more complicated than it might have been because I wasn’t sure that the thing I was looking for actually existed.
It was plausible that such a thing would exist.  It was even likely, since I own at least one other thing of the same kind.
In case you’re wondering, what I’m looking for is a basic but not bottom-level book on astronomy, preferably with a lot of illustrations and divided up in a way that made concepts and developments clear and had them clearly blocked out.
The problem was that no matter how hard I looked for it, I couldn’ t find it.  And I haven’t found it yet. So I made the obligatory post on FB, and sat back to see what would happen.
The first thing that happened was that somebody suggested the Dorling-Kindersly books. 
Now, I love the DK books, and my children had practically all of them–when they were very young children.  DK is aimed at very young children.
I decided I hadn’t really been clear, and posted back that I was really looking for something several levels of difficulty above that–
And people posted other suggestions, including something called The Stars by somebody named, I think, Hey or Fey–and one poster noted that she’d used that book in her middle school science class.
In other words, virtually all the books that were recommended to me were for children.
If the people who recommended these books to me had been themselves professional astronomers, I could have understood this, sort of.
But the people doing the recommending were other adults like myself, with no particular science backgrounds (with one exception) that I know of. 
And yet their idea of a book that “wouldn’t insult my intelligence” was one written for—ten year olds.
When I say other things of this kind exist, I mean it.  Somewhere in this office I have the best introductory book on evolution ever written, a solidly packed volume aimed AT ADULTS, beautifully written and clear.
And, while we’re at it, I know that writing about astronomy on the level I’m interested in exists, too, because there is Astronomy magazine and Scientific American and Discover.
I remain convinced that there must be, out there somewhere, a book FOR ADULTS of the kind I’m looking for.
But this incident reminds me of something else–the kinds of comments I see people making about Cosmos, the reboot of the Carl Sagan series now being narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson.
I like Cosmos quite a bit, but it is–like the books being recommended to me–narrated at the level usually achieved by a bright 10 year old. 
And it’s narrated at that level in spite of the fact that it obviously isn’t aimed at ten year olds, since it airs at nine o’clock on Sunday nights, when most ten year olds are in bed and in anticipation of the start of the school week.
What’s more, the comments I see do not respond to the show as a show for children, but always indicate that it’s the first thing they’ve seen in a long time that made science “clear” and understandable.
I mean, really?
I’ve commented here before that many of the big best sellers these days tend to be books for children, as if the general reading level of the adult population has been reduced to the elemental.
In this case, however, we’re talking about simple information, and its delivery doesn’t require anybody to read.
Is it really the case that people find science so intimidating and alienating they can’t understand ideas presented at the same intellectual level that they handle when reading about politics or history?
I find the whole thing completely bizarre, and while we’re at it.
I’m still looking for that book on astronomy.

Written by janeh

April 22nd, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'A Complaint, Sort Of, And A Puzzlement'

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  1. I emailed Jane with more details about “How Old is the Universe” by David Weintraub. Definitely at the Scientific American level.

    I have read some popular (non-mathematical) books on Physics and Astronomy which I liked. But keep in mind that I have a PhD in Physics and can fill in the gaps.

    “Boltzmann’s Atom” by David Lindley is a good treatment of the way atoms became central to physics and chemistry.

    “The Making of the Atom Bomb” by Richard Rhodes is a good treatment of nuclear physics.

    There are a couple of books by Brian Greene on string theory and multiverse but they leave me feeling skeptical.

    My apologies if this leaves you with more than you wanted to know!


    22 Apr 14 at 3:29 pm

  2. Hmmm. If the point is that reading levels have declined over the past two or three generations, I’m inclined to agree. Skeptics are cordially invited to compare the vocabulary and sentence length of TARZAN OF THE APES or A PRINCESS OF MARS with popular contemporary mainstream. That said:

    1. There are a LOT of books I’d like to read that no one has written–or at least no one has published. It isn’t necessarily proof of the decline of Western Civilization.
    2. In history and politics, people usually know a lot of things that aren’t so. In science, they at least know what they don’t know, which adds a touch of humility to the mix.
    3. I always remember the wisdom of Selim von Olmhorst. (“Ominlingual” by H. Beam Piper.) Von Olmhorst, distinguished dean of Hittitology, sees a chance to enter the new field of Martian archeology, but the Martians had gotten as far as the Periodic Table, and von Olmhorst had not. He sent off, as I recall, for “books on chemistry and physics written for a bright child of 10 or 12.” The price of learning anything completely new is, frequently, feeling like a child or looking like a fool. Often it’s a price worth paying.

    As for our recent best-sellers being “children’s books”–well, only if you stretch the definition to include Young Adult, which isn’t necessarily an easier read. And George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” books are adult books in content and reading level. Someone–her name started with an “H”–suggested that YA fantasy was in vogue because it required less background knowledge. I’d also suggest that fantasy works better as a world best-seller by crossing cultural barriers.

    But I think what you’re seeing is a single group aging. The kids who read the first Harry Potter at 10 or 12 when it was new were late teens for the “Twilight” books, and college age for “Game of Thrones.” The pig in the python is aging just a bit slower than real time as some of the older readers drop out and younger readers catch up, but it hasn’t–so far–moved backward. I expect the next hot book after “Game of Thrones” will be another one written for adults–and something else you’ll disapprove of.


    22 Apr 14 at 5:32 pm

  3. I must confess that some of my favorite books are fantasy and rated Young Adult. Robert, have you come across “The Blue Sword” or “The Hero and the Crown” by Robin McKinley? Both are fantasy, YA and have strong female characters as the main character.


    22 Apr 14 at 7:56 pm

  4. jd, when I first read The Blue Sword I didn’t realize it was categorized as YA, and nothing in the story really came through as less than adult. Of course, it is a “coming of age” story, so maybe that’s what makes it YA in the minds of some. Or perhaps the fact that there’s love but no sex.

    McKinley’s fantasies and retold fairy tales are some of my favorite writings of all time. They’re definitely all on my “re-read frequently forever” shelf.


    22 Apr 14 at 8:53 pm

  5. Lymaree, I didn’t realize The Blue Sword was YA until I looked at the cover of the paperback and saw what awards it had won!


    22 Apr 14 at 11:53 pm

  6. Thank you. Some Mckinley but not, I think, all. And now almost all my books are locked away until I retire, so it’s hard to check.
    The line on juveniles is tricky. The early Norton Witch World books were everyone’s favorite juveniles back in the day, but they were never so marketed. I remember Heinlein saying you wrote a juvenile by writing the best story you knew how to write, then leaving out the sex. But I checked and no one’s leaving out the sex any more. (More when I post to Jane’s next entry.)


    23 Apr 14 at 4:25 pm

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